Press Conference - Parliament House, Canberra

04 Aug 2022
Prime Minister
National Cabinet, COVID, Monkeypox, Climate Change Bill 2022, Jobs and Skills Summit, Industrial Relations, Centre for Disease Control, Renewable energy, Visa processing

PRIME MINISTER ANTHONY ALBANESE: This morning the national cabinet met virtually and was attended by all Premiers and Chief Ministers to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and discuss monkey pox as well as to receive briefings about Foot and Mouth Disease. Professor Paul Kelly is with me this this afternoon with the Chief Medical Officer provided an update on the current COVID-19 situation, including the uptake of the vaccine booster doses and antiviral treatments. We discussed the continuing impact on the health system and how we can work together to prepare and plan for likely future waves of COVID-19. It is important that people get their booster shots if they are eligible. We know that last summer there was another spike, another wave, and we should not be complacent about this issue, even though it would appear, we are hopeful, that we have reached a peak. Hospital numbers are down but we should not be complacent about this.

The Chief Medical Officer also declared monkeypox a communicable disease of national significance on 28 July. This followed the WHO declaration on 23 July. We know that this is an issue which is causing concern and both Paul and Mark will report more on it here. We also discussed the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in Indonesia: the fact that the figures that are going down, the rollout of support which is here in Australia and the need to have cooperation across Commonwealth and State and Territory agencies to deal with both FMD and also lumpy skin disease. Through the package, the Commonwealth continues to increase our biosecurity measures, including additional biosecurity officers, detector dogs, sanitation foot mats and increased messaging at airports. We agreed to continue to work with the sector as well on those issues.

I also provided an update on the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit. I have invited all of the Premiers and Chief Ministers to the summit. It will be held here in Canberra, and we will have the next meeting of National Cabinet either virtual or in person on the day before the Jobs and Skills Summit. Premiers and Chief Ministers have all raised the issue of skill shortages and the impact it is having on their economies. That varies given the different nature of the economies, the WA economy is different from the Tasmanian economy. But what is common is there are skill shortages that are providing a handbrake on our economy. The National Cabinet was very constructive once again, and I look forward to continuing to work with Premiers and Chief Ministers.

Before I ask Mark and Professor Kelly to make some further comments about the health issues, can I also say I am very pleased that the climate legislation has passed the House of Representatives. This is a fulfilment of a core promise that we made at the election of 43% reduction in emissions by 2030, a renewable sector that will grow to 82% of our National Energy Market by 2030, a program that will see some 604,000 jobs created – five out of every six of them in the regions. And it is pleasing that even though the crossbenchers did not get the demands met that were not consistent with the program that we put to the election, that it passed the Parliament and the Parliament functioned effectively to support the mandate that we received at the election with the exception of the Coalition, who continue to be stuck in time while the world warms around it. The truth is that the Business Council, the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry were all asking the Coalition to vote for our legislation and to vote for the position that we have a mandate for and they have chosen not to do so.

Once again, they are isolated in their petition. They have an opportunit, when the legislation gets to the Senate, to change their mind and to bring themselves into the 21st century and make themselves relevant to the debate. Australians who have been impacted by droughts, floods and bushfires know the impact of climate change is real. We need a response which is real; the Government is offering that. I'm pleased that it received the support of the House of Representatives.

MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thank you Prime Minister. I'm pleased to provide some advice about the Government’s actions in relation to the monkeypox outbreak which has been spreading through 76 countries so far, outside of those that have had endemic monkeypox for many years, for the past 13 weeks or so. I was first briefed by the Chief Medical Officer on the monkeypox outbreak on the 20th of May, the day before the Federal Election, which was the day after the first case was notified here in Australia on the 19th of May. That was two weeks after the first case had been notified outside of Africa in the United Kingdom. In those 13 weeks, the CDC in the US reports that there are more than 25,000 cases now in 76 countries outside of the endemic areas of Africa, including 58 cases which have been reported here in Australia. On that same day, 20 May, the former government, then the Albanese Government, started negotiations with Bavarian Nordic. We have had 27 meetings with that company since then to secure supplies of their third-generation vaccine, which is a vaccine that can obviously prevent the transmission of monkeypox virus but also be used as a post-exposure treatment.

I'm pleased to announce that this week we have secured an agreement for the supply of 450,000 doses of that third-generation vaccine, 22,000 of which will be arriving in Australia this week and next week, the remainder of 100,000 over the course of the rest of the year, 350,000 doses in 2023. This vaccine is far more effective and certainly more user-friendly for patients which may have compromised immunity and the Chief Medical Officer will go into this I’m sure. Then the second-generation vaccine which has been in the National Medical Stockpile for some time, essentially a treatment for smallpox which can also be used against monkeypox as well. So the first element of the Government’s actions against monkeypox is to procure the world's best vaccines for Australians and we are now one of only a very limited number of countries that have been able to secure supplies in this highly contested market, this third-generation vaccine in 2022. We will be rolling out that vaccine through state and territory sexual health clinics – but the Chief Medical Officer can talk more about that. We have been in discussions with state and territory governments now for some weeks about those arrangements and we are confident that they will start to be put in place very quickly. ATAGI, the technical advisory group on immunisation, has very clearly spelt out those at-risk cohorts which will be the priority group for those vaccines. So I’m very pleased we have been able to procure those supplies, one of the few countries in the world that have been able to do that.

The second element of our three point plan is to increase clinical capability in this area so that doctors and other clinicians are able to identify, isolate, and then treat cases, as well as contacts, as quickly as possible. We've been rolling out communications to clinicians now for several weeks. But we'll now be able to engage in training and further information for clinicians around these new vaccines. And the third element, the very important element, is community engagement. We've been working closely over the last several weeks with the peak advisory bodies in blood-borne viruses and STIs, particularly the Federation of AIDS Organisations, the clinicians in ASHM, NAPWA, the Association of People Living with HIV and AIDS and others and we'll be engaging particularly AFAO, the Federation of AIDS Organisations and ASHM to leverage their networks and their capability that they have built up over the last four decades to make sure there's really good engagement and good information into those at-risk populations. So I'm very pleased with the work that the CMO and the Department have been able to do in a very short period of time, particularly to secure the supply of vaccines which are so highly contested in a constrained global market.

PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thank you Prime Minister and Minister. So just a few things from me on monkeypox. Firstly, what is it? It's a viral disease, as has been mentioned by the Minister. It is spread by very intimate contact and at the moment the international as well as the local epidemiology demonstrates it's mainly in the international sphere and exclusively in the Australian sphere found among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with other men. But this can affect anybody and that's the reason why we've made all of the strong public health, clinical, laboratory and other guidance nationally to prepare and to respond to this outbreak. So the vaccine announcement today is absolutely important, but it's only one part of the many things we've been working on, as the Minister said, since May. I was in Geneva that first week when the WHO had their very first briefing about monkeypox and so we've been following that and the international situation in particular throughout that period. This disease in Africa, it is very easy to spot. There's a lot of rash on the whole body as well as flu-like symptoms. In this current outbreak, though, it can be quite specific and often affects the genital areas. It can cause periodontitis, a very painful condition, as well as other ways that it presents. So there's been a difference in the way it's presenting. It's generally does not cause severe disease but there have been some deaths in Spain recently, this week. And it can affect other people who are immunocompromised – children, pregnant women – if it gets into those populations it can be quite severe. So that's why we're taking the steps we're taking and the vaccines will really help with that. But that's only been part of the issues, we've been working on the basis of what the WHO has recommended we should do as a country like Australia, who has never seen monkeypox before. And we've been well ahead with that. We have secured the vaccines. We've been talking very closely with peak bodies, states and territories. We've developed clinical laboratory and public health guidance for the nation. ATAGI has given their advice on the vaccines.

The context of that limited supply means it will be targeted at those at greatest risk of having the disease or having poor consequences if they were to get the disease. I won't go into the details, but essentially it will be people at high risk of monkeypox who have had been in contact with someone in the last 14 days; gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men who are in that high risk category of a number of sexual contacts or a recent sexually transmitted infection; anyone in a high-risk group who is planning to travel overseas, because that's certainly an area where they are at higher risk if they're in that at-risk group, and those healthcare workers who are at greatest risk. These are the list of priorities. But just to stress that we've given that advice at the national level, but each state and territory will be looking after that manner and finding those people at risk to offer this vaccine as early as next week.

JOURNALIST: On climate change – you said your preference was to legislate the targets to generate business investment certainty. Do you accept that certainty is still under a cloud while the alternative government doesn't adhere to your targets and may change them, should they unlegislate them, should they be elected?

PRIME MINISTER: They're not acting much like an alternative government. They're acting like a permanent opposition. They are not acting like they have the interests of Australia at heart. And I believe that the calls by the Business Council, by ACCI, by AIG today could not have been clearer. This so-called party of private enterprise has today thumbed its nose at the business community of Australia who are crying out for certainty going forward. They wanted people to legislate across the Parliament. And it could have sailed through. We have been constructive, we've made it very clear across the Parliament what our position was, that the Powering Australia Plan was not up for negotiation, but if people had constructive suggestions on amendments we were happy to consider them and some of them were supported. Ones that weren't consistent with the objectives were not supported. And it's extraordinary that they chose to do that. I believe going forward, though, when this is in place, the Coalition will have to consider its own position and they bear the political responsibility for that. But by the time we get to the next election, in my view, it would be very brave indeed for an alternative political party that seeks to govern, as opposed to a minor party, to say we're going to tear down the structures that have been put in place that were supported overwhelmingly by the business community and by the mainstream of the conservation movement, but most importantly as well, by the Australian people. The Australian people want action on climate change. Today we took some important steps forward.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, there are going to be strikes tomorrow at ten ports around the country after the tug operator Svitzer applied to terminate an EBA with unions. Are you concerned about the disruption we're going to see tomorrow? Should there be action to stop employers unilaterally terminating EBAs?

PRIME MINISTER: Tony Burke has previously made comments previously about the unilateral termination of EBAs. What that means people essentially lose all of the above award, above the minimum base rate pay and conditions. This is one of the issues that I'm sure will be discussed at the Jobs and Skills Summit. We've said repeatedly that the industrial relations system is not working in the interests of business or in the interests of workers. And we will look to have constructive discussions between both employers and unions around how we can change that.

JOURNALIST: How do you see us going from the 20% of our energy being generated by renewables to more than 80% within eight years? How do you see it rolling out?

PRIME MINISTER: When I talk to the business community, including the investors group, what they say is that investment has been in the pipeline, it has been held back. Because if you're going to invest in something that produces a return over a period of time, that lasts for decades, not for years, then you need that investment certainty. I have given the example of Rio Tinto and their operations in Gladstone, the aluminiuma refinery and other heavy manufacturing that they have there. They're looking at powering that, with some backup in terms of base load, but powering it through renewables. That's a major Australian-based operation there in Gladstone. They have three different plants. And they're looking for the future. They're looking at that as a step and they're looking at hydrogen as a major step forward as well. I think that businesses are just waiting for the signal. They've got that in terms of the House of Representatives. I hope they receive that from the Senate as well. But today is a good day for business and a good day for workers and a good day for our environment.

JOURNALIST: David Pocock says he's still having constructive discussions with the government. Do you believe you have secured his support for this bill, and are you open to amendments in the Senate?

PRIME MINISTER: I have always found it best for people to speak on their own behalf. Mr Pocock is quite capable of speaking on behalf of himself. But he has made it very clear that this legislation should pass, in his own words. And, indeed, he called upon the Greens to vote for this legislation previously.

JOURNALIST: On monkeypox, are you expecting cases to increase? And if so, what kind of order of magnitude can we expect?

MINISTER BUTLER: I might throw to the CMO on that. As I said, case numbers have increased quite quickly around the world in those countries that don't have the history of monkeypox, which is essentially all countries outside of Africa. It's been 13 weeks since the first case was reported in the UK and the CDC last night reported more than 25,000: 6,000 in the US, 4,000 in Spain, 3,000 in the UK, only 58 cases here in Australia. So we've managed to avoid the worst elements you have seen in North America and Europe. I may throw that question to the CMO.

PROFESSOR KELLY: I'm not going to pick a number, but the important thing is all the work done since May in Australia, and with this added benefit of the vaccine, will continue to help us to control the epidemic here in Australia and I'm very confident that will happen.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, one of Labor's election commitments was to establish a new Centre for Disease Control. Can you please advise what work has started on that commitment and when you expect it to have it up and running?

PRIME MINISTER: I have already had discussions with at least a couple of Premiers who are very keen to have it located. We'll provide funding for our commitments like other commitments in the October budget.

JOURNALIST: So when do you expect it to be operational?

PRIME MINISTER: The reason why you have budgets is to say you have a few announcements in the budget. Stay tuned.

JOURNALIST: Getting to 82% by 2030: does the legislation today hasten the closure of coal and gas projects?

PRIME MINISTER: No. If you have a look at what has been happening with projects, in spite of the gap that's there, in the rhetoric of the former government. Remember Liddell? They used to talk about Liddell. The former Member for Kooyong used to stand up regularly and speak about keeping Liddell open. It didn't happen. Markets are operating in a way that is shifting towards cleaner cheaper energy. The problem has been that whilst that has been occurring, there hasn't been the investment certainty for renewables and there also hasn't been the work done on transmission to make sure that the grid is upgraded for the 21st century. What this legislation will do - the upgrading of the grid for the 21st century is a centrepiece of our plan.

JOURNALIST: Professor Kelly, is it your view the current Omicron wave is peaking sooner than initially expected? What are you seeing in the trends? And depending on that answer Prime Minister, are you expecting that you won't have to extend the extra health funding agreed to the states to cover what was expected to be a longer peak of Omicron?

PROFESSOR KELLY: So firstly, yes. I'm increasingly confident we have reached the peak and certainly the actual data that we're seeing, particularly hospital admissions decreasing in all states over the last few days and week, support that. I would like to say, this will be a segue to what the Prime Minister will answer in the second part, is that this is not the last wave. This is coming towards the end of this wave, or peaking of this wave. There will be a tail in hospitals, many older people with many other diseases other than COVID have been admitted. That's the word we're getting from clinicians on the ground. But this will not be the last wave. And we will continue to have to plan for that, be ready to know when that's happening and to respond to it accordingly.

PRIME MINISTER: On your question, Claire, the update that National Cabinet received today, I'm pleased to say, is consistent with what was envisaged when we met on a Saturday three weeks ago after I came back from the PIF, in terms of when the peak looked likely to be. Our funding arrangements and the decisions that question made by the National Cabinet then, in terms of those dates, are consistent with the advice we received.

JOURNALIST: On the Jobs and Skills Summit, some of your frontbench colleagues have flagged changes to visa processing. Is that what Premiers are telling you that is necessary, the backlog is quite significant?

PRIME MINISTER: It's no secret that they're telling me what they're telling Australia and what businesses are saying, which is that there are massive skills shortages in this country. Part of that is being exacerbated by the backlog in the processing of visas that was there when we came to office. Part of that is about the gutting of the public service and the failure to simply process people, whether it be for skilled work visas, for permanent visas, visitor visas. Quite frankly, the almost go-slow which was occurring – not as a direction by the government, but as a result of a failure to just do the basic business of government – was what was going on. One of the things I hope characterises my government, since May 21, is that we're actually getting on with the business of governing. We'll continue that at 2:00 in Question Time. Thanks very much.